Eleanor Roosevelt firmly believed civil rights to be the litmus test for American democracy. She declared over and over throughout World War II that the United States could not claim to be a democracy if African Americans did not have democratic rights. Mrs. Roosevelt repeatedly insisted that education, housing, employment, and voting were basic human rights that society was morally and politically obliged to provide its citizens, and that policies must be developed to create a level playing field.
Before World War II began, Eleanor Roosevelt had already established strong ties to the African American community. Her behind-the-scenes influence on the National Youth Administration, the Federal One Arts programs, the Homestead Subsistence Administration, and numerous Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects ensured that African American interests would at least be given token recognition by the New Deal. Her intercession on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, Howard University, Bethune Cookman College, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Marian Anderson, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, and the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax helped her forge a strong public image as a civil rights activist.1
The rise of Aryanism in Germany dramatically increased Mrs. Roosevelt's disgust with American racism. By 1939, she decided to attack the hypocritical way in which the nation dealt with racial injustice. She wanted Americans to understand how "writing and speaking about democracy and the American way without consideration of the imperfections within our system with regard to its treatment . . . of the Negro" encouraged racism. As she told Ralph Bunche in an interview for Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma, Americans wanted to talk "only about the good features of American life and to hide our problems like skeletons in the closet." This denial only fueled violent responses; Americans must therefore recognize "the real intensity of feeling" and "the amount of intimidation and terrorization" promoted by racism, and act against such "ridiculous" behavior.2
When white America refused to see how segregation mocked American values, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the issue sternly and directly: "We have never been willing to face this problem, to line it up with the basic, underlying beliefs in Democracy." Racial prejudice enslaved blacks; consequently, "no one can claim that . . . the Negroes of this country are free." She urged readers of The New Republic to acknowledge that "one of the main destroyers of freedom is our attitude toward the colored race." And "what Kipling called 'The White Man's Burden'," she proclaimed in The American Magazine, is "one of the things we cannot have any longer."3
Many Americans disagreed with Eleanor Roosevelt's stance. When she dared during the war to equate American racism with fascism, and argued that to ignore the evils of segregation would be capitulating to Aryanism, hostility toward her reached an all-time high. Newspapers from Chicago to Louisiana to New York covered the dispute, and citizens pleaded with J. Edgar Hoover to silence her. A few patriotic zealots accused her of "deliberately aiding and abetting the enemy abroad by fermenting racial troubles at home," and predicted that if Eleanor Roosevelt was not silenced, veterans would come home "only to return to find the Roosevelts and the negroes in complete charge of our so-called 'democracy' they fought to save."4
Jim Crow on the Home Front
Nothing could prepare the administration, however, for the venomous attacks Eleanor Roosevelt received for arguing that black defense workers should be allowed to occupy federally constructed housing units in Detroit. She argued that in the prevailing circumstances of a critical housing shortage, it would be possible for a combination of slum clearance and proper planning of new housing to produce integrated neighborhoods. But Charles Palmer, coordinator of the federal housing program, disagreed, and did not object when Congress stripped slum clearance from its housing appropriations bill.
Civil rights leaders then appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt to intercede on their behalf. Arguing that the African American workers had support from a variety of leading white politicians and labor leaders-including Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, along with Walter Reuther and other UAW officials-she convinced the President to reverse the white-only policy. By the end of February 1942, two dozen African American families, accompanied by three hundred African American supporters, prepared to move into the Detroit project. Met by cross burnings and a crowd of seven hundred armed white resisters, the families turned back. After police arrested 104 rioters, a series of compromises failed, and the city delayed occupancy for over a year.
In April 1943, supported by the White House and eight hundred state police, the city moved the African American families into their new homes. Within two months, tensions boiled over as fights broke out between the African Americans and whites seeking refuge from the summer heat at Belle Isle, an amusement park located on an island in the Detroit River. As rumors flooded the neighborhood adjacent to the Sojourner Truth housing project, sporadic outbreaks of violence coalesced into a sustained, brutal riot on June 21. Twenty-five African Americans and nine whites died.
Only the week before, Eleanor Roosevelt had returned to Washington from Chicago, where she had met with an overflowing and predominantly African American crowd distraught over the race riot which had closed the Addsco shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, three weeks earlier. Her Chicago speech was a plea for racial cooperation. When White House aides told her of the Detroit uprising, she mourned the deaths but was not surprised. As she later wrote Trude Pratt, "Detroit never should have happened, but when Congress behaves as it does why should others be calmer?"5
The country was stunned, and many held Eleanor Roosevelt responsible. One Detroit resident told the FBI the First Lady has "done more to agitate the whites and over-encourage the negroes . . . than any other single group outside of the Communists in the United States." Another wrote FDR that Eleanor Roosevelt and the mayor of Detroit encouraged the outbreak by "their coddling of the negroes." The southern press abandoned all decorum. "It is blood on your hands, Mrs. Roosevelt," the Jackson Daily News pronounced the day after the riot. "You have been personally proclaiming and practicing social equality at the White House. . . . What followed is now history."
Mrs. Roosevelt Visits the Troops
By August, the White House, concerned that the First Lady's positions were too damaging to the President, began its own counteroffensive. As Henry Wallace and Gardner Jackson later recalled, "Mrs. R . . . was ordered to go [to New Zealand]" because "the Negro situation was too hot." Although she had long wanted to visit the troops, Eleanor Roosevelt understood why the administration suddenly honored her request. "I suppose when one is being forced to realize that an unwelcome change is coming, one must blame it on someone or something."6
The tour of the South Pacific got Eleanor Roosevelt out of the controversy, but it did not weaken her commitment to racial justice. Haunted by her visits with soldiers on bases, in hospitals, and in battle zones, she obsessed over how to honor their sacrifices. More and more, she referred to the prayer she had carried with her. "Dear Lord, Lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember, somewhere out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer am I worth dying for?" As she confessed to a friend, her visit with the troops filled her with "a sense of obligation which I can never discharge."7
Thus, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted the CIO's invitation to host the opening of its integrated canteen in Washington in February 1944. When the wire services carried photographs of a smiling Eleanor Roosevelt serving refreshments to a crowd of African American soldiers and white hostesses, the furor over her racial policies resurfaced. Letters poured into the White House objecting to her participation, and newspapers from Tampa to Houston to Memphis editorialized against her conduct. Furthermore, Republicans capitalized on this fear and spread allegations throughout the 1944 election that Eleanor Roosevelt "advocated intermarriage of the negro with the whites."8
An Issue of National Security
For Eleanor Roosevelt, however, refusing to address racial justice in a conscientious matter would kill the nation. It was an issue of national security, she told a nationwide radio audience in late 1944: America must not neglect justice where race is concerned because to do so would be denying its heritage, tainting its future, and succumbing to the law of the jungle.9
With criticism of her escalating as the war drew to a close, Eleanor Roosevelt's warnings about the future increased. Worried that an uncertain postwar economy would exacerbate white racism, and that a refusal to recognize the contributions of African American veterans would encourage African American distrust of whites, she repeatedly challenged America to recognize that racial injustice was the biggest threat to American democracy. The United States must "stop generalizing about people" and recognize stereotypes as racist propaganda.10
"If we really believe in Democracy," Eleanor Roosevelt said to African American and white audiences throughout 1945, "we must face the fact that equality of opportunity is basic" and that grievances expressed by African Americans were "legitimate."11 "We have expected [the Negroes] to be good citizens and ... we haven't given them an opportunity to take part in our government."12 Refusing to concede to her opponents, Eleanor Roosevelt asserted that if the nation continued to honor Jim Crow, America would have defeated fascism abroad only to defend racism at home. America's great sacrifice would have produced a shallow victory. n
1Allida Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 85-151.
2 Ralph Bunche, quoted in Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944). See also "Memorandum presenting suggestive notes on "The Negro Worker and the Struggle for Economic Justice," prepared for Miss Thompson, attached to Ralph J. Bunche to Malvina Thompson, September 11, 1940, personal property of Ben Keppel of UCLA.
3"The Issue Is Freedom," The New Republic 107 (August 3, 1942): 147-48; draft, "What Are We Fighting For?" The American Magazine, July 1942, speech and article file, Eleanor Roosevelt papers, FDR Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.4For representative press coverage of the article see UPI release, dateline Chicago (October 11, 1943); Dopey Wilkerson, "If She Were a Negro," Daily Worker (October 20, 1943); and "First Lady Urges Negroes to Fight for Full Equality," Louisiana Weekly (October 2, 1943). Letter to J. Edgar Hoover, re: Mrs. Roosevelt's article "If I were a Negro" (October 13, 1943), FBI file # 100-0-19681, FOIPA request.5John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory (New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, 1979), 202-203; Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 444; Eleanor Roosevelt to Trude Pratt, June 28, 1943, Joseph P. Lash papers, FDR Library.6Jackson Daily News (June 22, 1943); "The Reminiscences of Virginia Durr" (February 6, 1990); oral history interview, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina; "The Reminiscences of Henry A. Wallace" (August 28, 1943), ORHO; and Eleanor Roosevelt to Josephus Daniels, July 23, 1943, AER papers.7Prayer cited in Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: Norton, 1970), 654; and Eleanor Roosevelt to Doris Fleeson, October 4, 1943, AER papers.8See folder 190.1, Criticism of the Negro Question, AER papers.9Eleanor Roosevelt, "Tolerance," attached to George Bye to Eleanor Roosevelt, February 27, 1945; and "Building for Peace," Speech and Article File, AER papers10Eleanor Roosevelt, "For the Joint Commission on Social Reconstruction," October 1945, AER papers.11"The Minorities Problem," attached to William Scarlett to Eleanor Roosevelt, March 19, 1946, Speech and Article File, AER papers.12Roosevelt, untitled radio address, August 16, 1943, Speech and Article file, and audiotape file, AER papers.Allida M. Black is a lecturer in history at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. She is the editor of What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1995) and the author of Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).